Booker vows to push reform New schools CEO promises 'aggressive' approach to change

He arrives in city today

Building community, business alliances among top priorities

July 06, 1998|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

If the Baltimore schools were a business, Robert Booker would be the turnaround specialist, recruited from a faraway city at the eleventh hour to resuscitate a company in crisis.

In fact, when the 68-year-old financial manager steps off an airplane from San Diego today and into his job as head of Baltimore's schools, he will face a system with children reading at levels far behind their peers nationwide and a recalcitrant bureaucracy unfriendly to change.

While the state legislature made sure the job carries the title of chief executive officer, Booker won't have the same tools or power he would in a company. He will be answerable to a variety of bosses -- parents, school board members, legislators, a governor and a mayor.

And his constituency for change -- normally the parents and community -- has remained largely silent in the past year.

Booker will start work enthusiastically with specific plans. "I am going to be very aggressive and assertive in terms of turning the system around," he said in a telephone interview last week from San Diego.

He will come with a management plan to establish a system of accountability that will monitor progress, he said, declining to give further details before talking to his staff. "It is always difficult to turn around a system that has been deteriorating for years. It takes the right leadership and team of people," he said.

His predecessor, Robert E. Schiller, knows how difficult that is. In a recent reflection on the past year as interim chief executive, Schiller said that what he found most distressing about the system was a culture that accepts failure.

"The conditions here are tough. But I will take you to New Orleans. I will take you to Detroit, to Newark or Harlem or the Bronx. They are not that different. But the schools are doing better. That transformation is not here. That internalization, the acceptance that it must change, and it will change that is not what we have been able to move a click.

"Normally, I have been able to shape an organization," Schiller said, but Baltimore's problems have continued in part because people believe the school system's leaders are transitory, and they can wait them out. And while he believes many people should be replaced, he said recruiting qualified people has been difficult.

Booker comes when the system is attempting to recruit new principals and staff for administrative positions. But he is also likely to add another high-level academic leader to balance his 30 years of financial experience in Los Angeles schools and five years as San Diego County's chief financial officer.

He said he would focus on that hire with the school board next week.

"I know he is looking for a strong instructional person to make that marriage," said Bonnie Copeland, vice president of the school board.

Barbara Byrd Bennett, a New York City school administrator with experience in turning troubled schools around, has been mentioned for the position. She was one of the finalists for Booker's job.

The new schools chief will have the assistance of Schiller, who has agreed to be available for a one-month transition period. Schiller began a process of reform last year, but Booker must carry on that charge -- the framework for which has been laid out in a master plan expected to be approved soon by the state.

School board member Edward Brody said the master plan is a work in progress that Booker can have some say in adjusting.

Booker said, "I want to assess the state of the school system. I should be able to identify strengths and weaknesses and begin to focus on the weaknesses.

"One thing I am very concerned about is building community support for the schools. Maybe there is not as much as is needed. I want to find out why that is. It is my belief that the schools will have a better chance of succeeding with community support," he said.

Also on Booker's agenda is building a relationship with the business community, which he believes has a wealth of resources that could be tapped.

He also will need a wealth of financial and human resources to attack the problems that have besieged the system. These are some elements of the situation Booker will confront:

Last year 1,200 students were suspended from Northern High School as a principal tried to gain control of a troubled, violent student body.

Most students who enter Baltimore schools won't graduate from high school. One study showed that 63 percent of the students who were ninth-graders in 1991 did not graduate from high school in 1994.

A national standardized test given last fall showed that the longer students stayed in Baltimore's public schools, the further they fell behind their peers. By fifth grade, the average student was reading on a third-grade level.

Pub Date: 7/06/98

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